The Concuspidor: twenty years old

By now (July 2015), the Concuspidor can start celebrating having completed his second decade on the web. More accurately, at the very end of June 1995 the first instalment of the story The Concuspidor & the Grand Wizard of Many Things was published online. The story progressed in weekly instalments from that point on until its conclusion six months later, just before Christmas 1995.

The Concuspidor

The Concuspidor & the Grand Wizard of Many Things complete with authentic 1990s-style JPEG compression artefacts

It was the first story to be told in this particular way, and I believe the first web comic in the UK to be produced and delivered solely online. At the time, it was deliberately exploiting image caching (because download speeds were so slow as to be the limiting factor back then). Your browser downloaded the illustration but then reused it because, as you clicked on the characters in the screen, subsequent requests were just pulling down comparatively small HTML pages containing the text. Nerdy historians can read more about this over on the Concuspidor history page, and there’s more information in the Concuspidor FAQ.

“the higher above the world you are, the freer your shadow is to wander”
— from the Box of Answers (in Phlegm)

The Concuspidor got a little attention at the time, including some positive reviews in the computer (offline) press. He’s been online ever since, together with his put-upon sidekick Cog, and their unexplained companion Phlegm the Pelican (who is integral to both the plot and the Answers-to-Everything reveal gag later in the story). In 2012 I added JavaScript to deliver the story in popups because it seems to make it easier to read. But other than that it remains fundamentally unchanged, a snapshot of a project delivered for the early web. As it happens, the broad-hatted buffoon served Beholder well because his presence online led to creation of the flagship puzzle Planetarium, which continues to delight and absorb a select band of patient readers to this day.

“castles built in air must address the problem of waste disposal responsibly”
— from the Box of Answers (in Phlegm)

The Concuspidor’s story contains many explicit elements of computer culture, which made sense at the time because the readership was inevitably dominated by people who were online because they were interested in computers, or were connected through the universities. In twenty years that’s changed drastically: now it would be odd to expect readers to recognise wordplay on the Asking (ASCII) character set, or security on Eunuch’s (Unix) platforms. On the other hand, now that the web has become ubiquitous in so many lives, perhaps what should seem odd is that most people using it really do know next to nothing about how the internet works.

The Concuspidor's portrait

With that in mind, it’s worth reflecting on how prescient The Concuspidor & the Grand Wizard of Many Things was. The premise of the technology it describes is that users ask questions that all feed to the Grand Wizard of Many Things, who fields those requests by dipping into his Box of Answers and sending responses back. Could it be that the Grand Wizard of Many Things is indeed Google? Remember this was back before Google existed, when search engines still really cared about taxonomies, and long before the idea that people would commonly navigate the web by asking questions in the browser itself. Even fibre optics are not quite so far from the mirrors and pipes that make the Concuspidor’s “information sewer pipeway” work.

So three cheers for that prince of rakes and chancers the Concuspidor, who put Beholder online and who remains here twenty years later, long after more lavish or costly projects have arisen and faded away.

Once upon a time I read Wolves in the Walls

Around ten years ago, maybe a little less, I went into a school to talk to the children about fairy tales, to read them Neil Gaiman’s Wolves in the Walls, and to test out their reaction to the folk-talesy (very) short stories that I had written to preface each of the Knot-Shop Man books.

Actually the children were aged around 8, which is younger than the Knot-Shop Man audience I was writing for*. And if you’ve read any of those five stories (oddly I can’t remember if we did The Girl & the Wolf, which from what follows seems likely) you’ll know they are a bit askew, and not happy: more folktale faerie than Disney fairy, certainly.

The astonishing thing to me, knowing these little people were much too young to be cynical, or alert to metaphor or aphorism or whatever it is I might think is really going on in those stories, was that they liked them. In fact, they were hushed throughout each reading and some of them loved them, when we talked about them afterwards. The Poet & the Princess, which is a literally (yes) disheartening story, was the one they liked the most, and it was at that point I remember thinking, wow, there’s something going on here because I had not thought an 8-year-old would like something quite this bleak, this finger-wagging, this unworldly.**

Anyway, as part of that morning, we talked about wolves, and I invited the children to describe wolves and their characteristics. As expected, what I got back was the thumpingly bad press our fairytales have given wolves, even though — by their own admission — only one or two children in the room could claim to have ever encountered one, and that of course was in a zoo (television, we all agreed, did not count). But when I asked, “who here is afraid of wolves?” maybe only the most timid six of the twenty-four children put their hands up.

At which point I paraphrased Angela Carter’s The Company of Wolves and re-framed the question: “Well, what if I told you there were two kinds of wolves? There are wolves that are hairy on the outside, and when they eat you go to heaven. But then” — and here of course I got louder, and a bit taller — “there are the wolves that are hairy on the inside, and when they clamp their jaws on you they drag you down with them to Hell! NOW WHO’S SCARED OF WOLVES?” Every single child in the room shot their hand into the air, and thus I had primed them for a wide-eyed, breath-holding, lip-biting sitting of The Wolves in the Walls.

It’s one of my favourite children’s books for a number of reasons, mainly (of course) the excellent reversal it contains (read it; I won’t spoil it). But also the presentation withstands detailed scrutiny: for the observant, Dave McKean’s illustrations are strictly disciplined, with the world, the people, and the wolves each rendered with a different technique. So there’s a lot to investigate with a classroom of interested youngsters — not just the story, but the way those two collaborators (Gaiman and McKean) have chosen to present it.

The other thing I did in that session — separate from the wolves — was to look at the “pattern of three” in fairytales. Of course the children can easily provide examples once you’ve asked them to think about it: why not the four little pigs? Who ever thinks about only making two wishes? And so on (naturally, Lucy in Wolves in the Walls warns the members of her family three times). One of my favourite examples of this threesiness is from Jim Henson’s The Storyteller, which includes the line, “She cried and she cried and she cried until she cried a hole in her heart.” It’s a simple sentence that young children can easily understand, but they can also recognise that nobody normally talks like this — it’s a pattern reserved for the poetic world of storytelling.

So as an exercise, I asked the children to write sentences in this form. They wrote them down and read them out, and we had a lot of fun. “He laughed and laughed and laughed until his head fell off!” (the whole class laughs for that one). “She ran and ran and ran until she got home” (OK, that works). And lots more. Then, in the corner, the teacher whose class I had commandeered put her hand on a little boy’s shoulder and said, “Henry has written one.” I remember he had used a pencil, where his more confident classmates had been using pens. He quietly read out:

“He lived and lived and lived until he died.”

Henry, I hope you’re out there somewhere now, writing, because when you were eight you were already hitting the target.


* For common-sense anti-child-patronising reasons, I’m wary of “reading ages”, but nominally The Knot-Shop Man was written for children a few years older than that.

** Which is of course yet another reason to oppose putting age suitability on books, although that’s not my point here.

Short story: La Séptima Bala

I’m pleased to finally announce the release of La Séptima Bala, an online short story, with gorgeous illustrations by my collaborator René, and told with a subtle bit of enforced interaction. Read it at

La Septima Bala

Early morning: the girl who knew the secret of the seventh bullet meditates on a rooftop. From La Séptima Bala.

We did the final artistic push on this at the end of 2014 (René and I live on different continents, so getting together to make art requires extra effort). All the line art in the project is René’s, but we went through to-and-fro refinement on pretty much every aspect that ends up in front of your eyes. We worked together physically on colouring the illustrations, which took much longer than most people who knew what we were up to seemed to expect. Perhaps by the end of this paragraph you’ll have formed your own opinion as to why this might be. Anyway… the story is set in the north of Mexico and we were extraordinarily careful both about how this informs the palette we used and how it runs through the development of the story. It turns out that “working together” means having long and bitter debates about details concerning, but not limited to, the butterfly (who knew that monarch butterflies‘ wing colours differ depending on whether they are migrating or not?), the snake, the snail, the sky, the ground, the architecture, the clothes, the history of the Mexican revolution, the quality of the tattoos of people walking past where we were sitting, the drinks we were having, the difficulty of finding power sockets in coffee shops, the dreadful mess Peter Jackson made of telling The Hobbit story… well pretty much everything really. We had, obviously, a wonderful time.

Here’s a little montage of René drawing and colouring. All the action took place in various coffee shops around Bangkok (mostly Rama IX), although René doesn’t drink coffee. If you look carefully you’ll see he’s actually sipping a glass of water (that’s pretty much all I allowed him, frankly) while the foo-foo drink in front of him is in fact my “fusion” iced chocco-tea with whipped cream and caramel. Yeah, I know; totally classy, me. (When I write, I drink black coffee, as dark as sin and as bitter as my heart; or neat single malt — honestly! this is true! — but, uh, not when I am colouring-in).

montage of artist at work

Brother-in-pens René at work (although, note that “work” here means not getting paid). I wasn’t goofing around not contributing, oh no… I was taking these pictures to document the process of making La Séptima Bala.

Some thankyous are in order to others who helped too, including those who joined in the “user testing” phase. I’m grateful to everyone who took the trouble to give me feedback (especially regarding some subtle parts of the click-to-progress mechanism, which inevitably resulted in material changes). Lots of people contributed to other things too, but I’ll call out just a few by name.

  • There’s one tiny bit of Japanese script in the whole project, but Masayo-chan not only drew my attention to the mistake in it, but also pointed out that I had subsequently “corrected” it using a character that wasn’t written that way in the early 1900s where the story is set (I direct interested readers to educate themselves, as I had to, on the topic of Japanese script reform).
  • Jed generously spent hours chasing issues with sound and JavaScript while I was with him in Glasgow.
  • Matthew cut straight to the problem I was having with preloading and made some common-sense suggestions about the underlying tech.
  • Myf drew my attention to the project’s Mexican illustrator’s woeful understanding of snail anatomy, which I corrected myself because sometimes when you need a job doing properly, etc., etc..
  • Abi’s laserbeam proofreading eyes cauterised errors that I’d been looking past for months.

Finally, as usual for online Beholder projects, you can visit the site without being pestered by adverts and wotnot thanks to the ongoing presence of the server, which is powered by the generosity of sysadmin Mark (and JBB’s fat pipe).

La Séptima Bala has been a lot of work for what is actually just one page on the web. Please read it at I hope you enjoy it as much we we enjoyed making it together.

2015 Beholder news: Planetarium update

It’s been quiet in the blog here. 2014 was a busy year for the things which prevent me doing Beholder projects (of which Fudebakudo, of course, is one). But I managed to spend most of December working on a forthcoming project with René (my brother-in-pens), which we’re hoping to release on the Beholder site in a month or two. It’s an interactive short story with René’s gorgeous illustrations and has a slight Fudebakudo flavour to it.

Planetarium mathemagician

The mathemagician holds up a crystal sphere in Planetarium, because… well, because he does.

In the meantime — before we put that project live and announce it on this blog — I’ve also been working on updating the Beholder online puzzle story, Planetarium. Those changes went live today. If you’ve looked at Planetarium before you’ll see the illustrations are bigger and a little brighter than before, and it now uses the main Beholder site’s “responsive” layout (plays nicely on your mobile phone).

Beholder’s Alphabet for Geniuses

Ee... if for zebra?

E is for… zebra? See the Alphabet for Geniuses.

The Fudebakublog also serves as an occasional mouthpiece for other Beholder projects. So I’ll mention here that the old Alphabet for Geniuses project has been updated.

The Beholder site has not been linking to the Alphabet for a couple of years for rather silly reasons to do with publishing. That’s over now, so I took the opportunity to update the project for better display on small-screen devices and tablets.

Actually the Alphabet project is so old (1991) that there really are a few grown-ups wandering around on this planet today who had it as a frieze on their nurseries’ walls. No specific tests have been run, but presumably they did turn out to be smarter than less assisted infants. It’s only available online now — that is, not on paper any more — although the latest digital incarnation does have the benefit of delayed reveals and even the “hidden feature” of text on each word. Share and enjoy.